Sounds like the stuff of an intriguing lower-budgeted arthouse film. But shot in 3-D with expensive computer animation to create a lifelike tiger and other creatures, Pi cost a whopping US$120 million with no guarantee it could ever pay for itself. 20th Century Fox executives ultimately decided it had enough international appeal to justify the risk.
“I’d be kidding you to say that we knew it would reach these levels,” said Jim Gianopulos, Fox studio chairman. “But it’s a big, beautiful world out there, and when you deliver a film that has the strength of story, the emotionality, the spirituality and the spectacle of a film like Pi, people show up.”
Hollywood studios once counted on domestic audiences for most of a movie’s revenue. But overseas markets have been Hollywood’s growth area, with international audiences now accounting for two-thirds or more of receipts on many films.
The ratio is even higher on Life of Pi, which has taken in a respectable US$108.5 million domestically but a remarkable US$460 million — four-fifths of its total — from overseas fans. That includes US$90.8 million in China, US$45.4 million in Great Britain, US$29.9 million in Russia and US$19.8 million in Mexico.
The film comes four years after Slumdog Millionaire, another surprise smash about an Indian youth facing grave challenges. Slumdog took in US$377 million worldwide and won the 2008 best-picture Oscar.
Two such films don’t constitute a new wave of Hollywood openness to foreign flavors, though.
“Remember after the success of Slumdog, there was a lot of talk of a lot more films like that set in similar locations, and it just didn’t happen,” said Nitin Govil, assistant professor at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts. “Anytime you get a success like this, there’s an attempt to kind of genericize it. But the thing that makes these successful is that they’re singular. Maybe not one-offs, but certainly not formulaic.”
And Hollywood remains a formulaic place, with stories mostly reflecting American tastes.
There have been small steps toward diversity in characters and a broader world view in themes, thanks partly to inroads by such overseas directors as Lee, Peter Jackson, Alfonso Cuaron, Guillermo del Toro, John Woo and Neill Blonkamp.
“I don’t see that as mainstream yet. Someday. The establishment is the establishment. The film grammar was established that way. Patterns. I think for the majority of films they make, they will still follow that. That’s the formula. You have to respect that if you’re serious about money,” Lee said.
“It’s just that I think they have to be more opened up to different types of filmmaking,” added Lee, who figures the enormous business Life of Pi did overseas will help that along — a bit. “It’s a gradual thing. It’s not going to dramatically change anything. But just look at the number. You have to pay attention to it. The number of what the world did on this movie. The market in America didn’t dwindle. It’s everybody else in the world. They stood up. They did their share.”